The Los Angeles Rams are set to host the Dallas Cowboys inside brand-new SoFi Stadium for a primetime NFC showdown on "Sunday Night Football." Both teams enter the 2020 NFL season with high expectations, looking to bounce back from disappointing 2019 campaigns. And while it may just be Week 1, this is a matchup that could very well have playoff implications down the road.
The Cowboys will officially kick off the Mike McCarthy era on Sunday night, following a lackluster 10-year run under Jason Garrett in which Dallas never made it past the divisional round of the playoffs. The hope is that the former Packers head coach will take America's Team back to its former glory as a perennial Super Bowl contender. While that sentiment is still little more than conjecture and wishful thinking at this point, McCarthy does inherit one of the league's more talented rosters. That's particularly true on the offensive side of the football, where Dallas has as much talent as any team in the NFL. A trip west to face the Rams will make for a good first test for the new Cowboys' regime.
The Rams make their way into the season opener in search of a fresh start as well. In addition to breaking in their new state-of-the-art stadium that came with a price tag of $5.5 billion, they will be sporting new uniforms and a new logo on Sunday night. Sean McVay also brought in new coordinators on both sides of the football, as well as special teams, in a bid to breathe new life into his team after taking a step backward last season. But will that be enough to right the ship? Salary cap issues didn't do the Rams any favors, as they lost several high-profile players to free agency or via trade. However, there is still more than enough talent on the roster to make some noise, and McVay is still one of the top offensive minds in the NFL. That leaves plenty of room for optimism that the Rams can return to playoff form in 2020. A win over the Cowboys on Sunday night would be a big step in that direction.
Dallas at Los Angeles
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 13 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Spread: Cowboys -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Life after Todd Gurley
Gurley played a huge role in the success of Sean McVay's offense during the Rams' run to back-to-back NFC West titles in 2017 and '18. He also played a part in the demise of McVay's offense last season. That prompted Los Angeles to move on from the talented running back amid salary cap concerns. Gurley is now in Atlanta, where he looks to rekindle the magic that helped him earn Offensive Player of the Year honors just three seasons ago. Despite his drop in production last season, Gurley was a player that commanded plenty of attention from opposing defenses, something that will be sorely missed in the Rams' offense this season. The question is, is there anyone on the roster that can take his place?
McVay seems to be set on a running back by committee approach to try and fill the void left behind by Gurley. At least, that's the plan for Sunday night. Career backup Malcolm Brown is expected to get the start against the Cowboys. He is the most experienced running back on the team, although his career 3.9 yards per carry average leaves plenty to be desired. Darrell Henderson Jr., who was selected by the Rams in the third round of last year's draft, is currently listed as the No. 2 running back and will play on Sunday night despite a lingering hamstring issue. By far the most intriguing option is second-round draft pick Cam Akers out of Florida State -- a dynamic runner and a solid pass catcher that has drawn comparisons to Kareem Hunt. If you had to bet on one of these running backs to shine on Sunday night, the smart money would be on him. That being said, Akers is currently listed third on the Rams' depth chart and his struggles in pass protection could limit his time on the field to some degree. All three running backs will get their shot but running room might prove difficult to come by against Dallas, who somewhat quietly, finished fifth against the run last season and added even more depth to it defensive line this offseason.
2. Cowboys look to hit the ground running
The Cowboys absolutely torched the Rams on the ground when these teams met in Week 15 last season. Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard each ran for more than 100 yards, as the Dallas ground attack racked up 263 rushing yards and three touchdowns against a Los Angeles defense that had no answers. Could we see more of the same on Sunday night?
It's hard to envision the Rams being better against the Cowboys' run game this time around, especially at the second level, where they lost their top three linebackers to free agency -- including leading tackler Cory Littleton. And the new linebacker corps, which consists of Samson Ebukam, Leonard Floyd, Micah Kiser and Troy Reeder, doesn't exactly scream upgrade. Los Angeles also lost run-stopping safety and second-leading tackler Eric Weddle to retirement. If Elliott and Pollard can get to the second level of the Rams’ defense on Sunday night, there shouldn't be much resistance.
The challenge lies in getting to that second level. Keep in mind, Los Angeles still has the most imposing force in the NFL roaming the defensive line in Aaron Donald. Fellow defensive lineman Michael Brockers has earned quite the reputation as a run-stuffer himself. And the Cowboys' offensive line won’t be quite as strong as it was last December.
All-Pro center Travis Frederick has since retired, and road-grading right tackle La'el Collins was recently placed on injured reserve. In their stead will be center Joe Looney and right tackle Cam Erving, both of which can be considered downgrades, perhaps even liabilities in this matchup. The Cowboys still have All-Pro talents in right guard Zack Martin and left tackle Tyron Smith to help lead the way. But the challenge will be greater without Frederick and Collins in the lineup. Regardless, the Cowboys should have the edge in the run game.
3. Mismatches in the passing game
The Rams traded wide receiver Brandin Cooks to Houston this offseason, but quarterback Jared Goff still has plenty of quality weapons at his disposal in Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp, Tyler Higbee, Josh Reynolds and highly touted rookie Van Jefferson. On the other side of the football lies, what looks to be, a suspect Dallas secondary. Star cornerback Byron Jones has moved on, so the Cowboys no longer have a top-flight corner to rely on. Rookie Trevon Diggs will replace Jones in the lineup, and while Diggs has impressed during fall camp, growing pains are to be expected in his first NFL start. Goff and company will definitely put Diggs to the test on Sunday night, and it will be interesting to see how the rookie responds.
Another potential mismatch that McVay will look to exploit in the passing game is with Higbee. The tight end was one of the few bright spots for the Rams offense when these teams last played in December, hauling in a season-high 12 catches for 111 yards. He should once again be a high-priority target for Goff on Sunday night against a vulnerable Dallas pass defense.
The Cowboys have plenty of reasons to be excited about their passing game on Sunday night as well. The addition of first-round draft pick CeeDee Lamb to go along with standouts Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup, give Dak Prescott one of the top receiving corps in the NFL. Throw in Elliott’s exceptional pass-catching ability out of the backfield to go along with sleeper tight end Blake Jarwin, and you have arguably the most dangerous passing attack in the league.
The Rams provide formidable opposition in the secondary with All-Pro Jalen Ramsey and the underrated Troy Hill manning the primary cornerback spots. That duo played a big role in limiting Cooper and Gallup to a combined two catches for 25 yards when these teams played last December. However, the Rams no longer have standout nickelback Nickell Robey-Coleman to lean on in the slot. That could be a major issue on Sunday night with David Long Jr. left to contend with Lamb. Elliott and Jarwin should have plenty of opportunities in the passing game as well. Beyond Ramsey and Hill, the Rams' pass defense appears to be pretty uninspiring. And Dak Prescott has a wide assortment of talented weapons to throw at them.
The Rams will be amped to play on the big Sunday night stage in their brand-new stadium, but not having fans in attendance sort of negates any real home-field advantage. Plus, it's safe to say that the Cowboys will be equally pumped to be breaking in the new stadium on SNF. Jared Goff should be able to find success in the passing game against a suspect Dallas secondary, but that may be the Rams' only advantage in this matchup. The Rams did nothing to improve a defense that Dallas completely dismantled in last season's 44-21 blowout win. And as great as Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey may be, they can only cover so much ground. The Cowboys simply have too much firepower on offense for this defense. Dallas will usher in the Mike McCarthy era with a big win on the road to spoil the Rams' first game in SoFi Stadium.
Prediction: Cowboys 30, Rams 24
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.